Iowa closer to passenger rail to Chicago


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Passenger railroads are one step closer to a reality for people wanting to travel from Iowa City to Chicago, but possible construction remains in the distant future. 

Last week, the Federal Rail Administration agreed to allow the Iowa Department of Transportation to begin preliminary engineering work and follow-up environmental assessment on the planned Amtrak route between Iowa City and Chicago.

“Ideally, the next phase is preliminary engineering, which will not give a final design but will get us to about 30 percent [of the funding] to understand engineering requirements and eventually go to final design and construction,” said Amanda Martin, the Iowa Department of Transportation’s freight and passenger policy coordinator.

She said the project would still need significantly more federal and/or state funding to further progress. 

The Federal Rail Administration planned an 80 percent federal and 20 percent state and local funding split.  Of the roughly $72 million estimated to complete Phase 2, this week’s agreement only approves $53 million in funding.

“The next phase will get us to about mid-2016, where we will be staged to move forward with additional phases,” Martin said.  “We’re just doing this piece now, but after 2016, it’s all to be determined.”

Sen. Tod Bowman, D-Maqouketa, the head of the Transportation Committee, said until the state has specific funds designated to the project, construction is probably in the distant future.

He said he remains optimistic about the future of passenger rail to eventually go from Chicago across the state.

“Most likely what we’re talking about is infrastructure dollars in different funds that could be appropriated to that,” Bowman said. “It would take the government and Legislature to work together to get it brewing.”

The rail network is planned to go from Chicago through Naperville and on to the Quad Cities and Iowa City.

Iowa City Chamber of Commerce President Nancy Quellhorst said in an email the line would provide an affordable option for locals to travel to and from Chicago without being concerned about weather or parking.

“We have a limited, unique opportunity to capitalize on the Federal Rail Administration grant,” Quellhorst said.  “The Quad Cities route is in progress and once that route is in service, I'm confident Iowans will understand how very valuable passenger rail service is to our community.”

She said many communities have recognized the considerable economic development that surrounds stations.

She also said many downtown retailers appreciate and rely on business from Chicago area residents.
Of the 31,387 students attending the University of Iowa this fall, 6,232 students hail from Illinois. Minnesota has the next most with 702 students.

Zack Sikat, a senior business marketing major from Schaumburg, Illinois, said he’s had great Amtrak experiences in the past and would definitely use it to travel home.

“It would save me gas money and be less dangerous in the winter when I’m in my own car or on a bus,” Seacat said. “So Amtrak is looking like the better option in my opinion.”

Julia Pfeifer, a senior from Barrington, Illinois, said it would be the best option for students traveling without cars.

“If there’s a faster and more leisurely alternative where people can get work done at the same time, I think it might be appealing [for students and alumni] to come for a weekend,” Pfeifer said.

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